One Woman's Mission to Expose the Widespread Abuse of Israeli Babies in Day Care Centers

For three years Hadas Hakimi has been informing parents about abusive preschool and day care staff around the country. 'Out of every 10 day cares tested, eight come back improper'

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Hadas Hakimi. Out of every 10 day cares where she plants a recording device, "eight come back improper."
Hadas Hakimi. 'I’d be doing something, remember the worst of their cries and start crying myself.'Credit: Hadas Parush
Noa Limone
Noa Limone
Noa Limone
Noa Limone

If one recording she has heard stays etched on Hadas Hakimi’s heart till her last day, it’s the seven and a half hours from a day care center in Kfar Yona north of Tel Aviv. Almost throughout, you can hear a baby and a 2-year-old alone in a room; for four and a half hours their terrible wailing goes unanswered.

“The mother of a 5-month-old baby told me that her son is at a day care with four other babies,” Hakimi says. “She says he comes back with puffy eyes as if he cried a lot, and very bad diaper rash.”

Hakimi gave the mother a recording device and advised her on how to use it and hide it. The next evening they had the recording. But unlike the countless times she did this before, this listening was so hard on her she spread it out over two days.

For three years Hakimi, known to many parents as “the children’s guardian,” has been working tirelessly to inform parents about abusive preschool and day care staff in Israel. She provides parents with a recording device and listens to the result. If it sounds improper to her and the parents, she advises them to file a police complaint and take their story to the media. (And she makes sure the other parents know about her endeavors.)

On the day the recording mentioned above was made, Hakimi says, only two children came to the day care – the baby who wore the recording device and the 2-year-old. The other three children were ill and stayed home.

“At the beginning of the recording you hear the day care worker greet both children with a saccharine display of warmth and love,” she says. Around 20 minutes after the parents left, according to the parents and Hakimi as they say they heard in the recording, “she puts them in the room where they nap. You hear the door close, and there it ends.”

According to Hakimi, from that moment, you don’t hear the door open again until the end of the day. “You hear prolonged crying, and then silence,” she says, adding that she assumes the baby and toddler cried themselves to sleep. Later, the children wake up, “and then for four and a half hours you hear wall-shaking screams,” she says.

“It’s a cry of hunger, frustration and fear. I don’t know if even a light was on in the room. I’m trying to imagine the 2-year-old standing alone on the bed for seven hours. At a certain point you hear him say, in a pleading voice, 'water, water, bottle,' but he gets no water, no bottle. No one comes in or out of the room. Only half an hour before pickup time, the day care worker finally opens the door. She says, ‘What happened? What are you crying for like somebody died?’”

After listening to the recording, Hakimi found herself crying for two months. “I’d be doing something, remember the worst of their cries and start crying myself,” she says. “I really think I had PTSD. I’ve heard lots of screaming, cursing, even beating in my day, but this story will stay with me to my grave.”

According to Hakimi, when she approached people in the media with the tape, nobody wanted to publish it.

An Israeli preschool. 'A lot of times the parents suspect nothing. A lot of times they’re shocked to discover that the day care operator is abusive.'Credit: Hadas Parush

“They told me, ‘there’s no cursing there. There’s nothing to broadcast,’” she says. “So I uploaded a post where I described the contents of the tape, which reached 4,000 shares in a day. After it went viral, the media was coming to me. The post raised a lot of awareness, and a lot of parents approached me.”

Thanks to the perceptive mother and Hakimi, the day care center in Kfar Yona isn’t operating at the moment, but it wasn’t shut down by a police order. The recording was made in June, but the case still awaits the prosecution.

“Upon receipt of the complaint the police opened an investigation in which all actions have been taken,” the police said, with the state prosecution adding, “The case file was sent to the prosecutor but was immediately returned to the police for the investigation to be completed, as it lacked vital documents.”

No training, no screening

Hakimi, 38 of Hod Hasharon near Tel Aviv, was originally a fitness trainer. Before the case of abusive day care owner Carmel Mauda in 2019 – an event that rocked her world and drove her to her current life’s work – she had no connection to the world of preschool or day care. Her only son, 14-year-old Uri whom she raises alone, was never hurt by an employee in such a setting.

When he was 1, Uri was diagnosed with Camurati-Engelmann disease, a genetic syndrome characterized by thick bones in the arms, legs and skull.

“He has a hard time walking and uses a wheelchair some of the time. He doesn’t speak at all,” Hakimi says, her voice cracking for the first time despite the many sad topics we explore. “I live it every day, but suddenly when I talk about him out loud it becomes real and it’s like somebody else’s life I’m describing, not my own.”

Is her motherhood of a special needs child linked to her crusade to save children from day care abuse? Hakimi doesn’t think so. “It’s deeper than that. It’s not about my child,” she says, adding that her devotion to the issue stems from closure of a personal issue, but she declines to elaborate.

Hakimi started small: comments to parents whose children were harmed by Mauda, participation in protests and highly emotional posts where she reached parents who removed their children from abusive day care centers. “I’d send them a private message and ask about the place,” she says. “If they told me the name, I’d go there and offer to work there as an assistant.”

You entered day care centers undercover?

“Yes. I have a criminal mind. I bought a hidden camera and went in.”

I’m trying to understand how such a thing happened. After all, you’re not a private investigator. How did you know, for instance, where to buy a hidden camera?

“I looked it up online.”

Hakimi’s first experience was at a day care center in Petah Tikva for ages up to 3. “I saw workers slam children into chairs, and feed children violently and unpleasantly,” she says.

“I’ve seen kids yelled at, spoken to abusively. I’d come home and feel awful. After a week I went to the police with the footage, but these awful sights weren’t considered criminal. Eventually the day care closed down because parents wouldn’t enroll” their kids there.

A demonstration in Tel Aviv against violence by workers at the country's preschools. Credit: Moti Milrod

The next day care center she worked at was in Ariel in the West Bank. “I lasted only one day,” she says. “The worker changed diapers on the dining table. There were 20 kids there to one caregiver, me, because the other worker did nothing but order me to change diapers. Babies spent whole days in the pen, some crying in a stroller, being ignored.”

Hakimi realized that entering day care centers by posing as a worker had limited returns. “Then the taping project was born,” she says, “a snowball. From two or three parents who approached me, it grew to another 10 and another 20.”

The moniker “the children’s guardian” was coined after she exposed an abusive day care worker in Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa, leading to the worker’s dismissal. The mother who recorded the caregiver with Hakimi’s help suggested the nickname, and Hakimi adopted it, opening a Facebook page under it.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t get dozens of messages there,” she says, adding that her recording devices see action throughout the country. “I run a thick binder to connect people, to pass the devices from one to the other.”

Out of every 10 day care centers where you planted a recording device, can you estimate how many come back problematic?

“Out of every 10 day cares tested, eight come back improper, but not all to the same degree. It can be humiliating and repulsive speech, it can be neglect, it can be physical violence. I find it improper to humiliate someone, to take a child who raised a hand to another child, stand him to the side and tell the child who was hit to go hit back, for instance. When you listen to a recording and shiver, when you listen and it’s clear that these people shouldn’t be working in education, that’s problematic.”

Sure enough, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the vast majority of staff members at day care centers for children up to 3 years old have no training in childcare. Then there’s the overcrowding and the fact that there’s no screening of people working in the field.

“The day cares where the recording devices were placed aren’t the only ones that raised parents’ suspicions,” Hakimi says, adding that often it’s not the parents who initiate the placing of a recorder but day care workers.

“A lot of times the parents suspect nothing. A lot of times they’re shocked to discover that the day care operator is abusive. Nobody suspected Carmel Mauda either. Everybody thought she was wonderful. It was the assistant who led to the exposure. The parents say the kids would come to the day care happily, and kiss and hug her.”

According to Hakimi, the situation is no better at supervised day cares. “Supervision means that once every three months, at best, an inspector comes to the day care to see how it’s run. But her visit is prearranged. The workers know the day and time the inspector will come,” she says.

“So what’s she going to see? How the children are yelled at and beaten? When I entered the day cares as a worker I saw how it works. You put on a show for the inspector. I expect them to do surprise inspections, to stand outside the day care and listen how the children are spoken to, what the approach to the children is. Don’t announce your arrival ahead of time. That’s not supervision.”

In fact, she believes that the situation at municipal day care centers is worse. “The vast majority of municipal day cares that I’ve heard recordings of are run like military units. You wouldn’t believe that 3-year-olds are spoken to like that,” she says. “This month I had about 10 municipal day care centers, and at all of them, after we went to the Education Ministry, they fired the workers. But why were they hired in the first place?”

Hakimi adds that in many recordings from municipal day care centers, you constantly hear shouting. “The day care is run exclusively by yelling: ‘Get up! Sit there! Move over there! Why like that?’ Screaming and threats all day,” she says.

“I’m not talking about any love and warmth. Last night I sat up late listening to a recording from a municipal day care. You hear the worker tell the child: ‘You’re eating alone today! You hear?’ – screaming. He sits alone to eat, then she goes back and yells at him. ‘Get up! Bring your plate! Sit with them here for the picture. Good. Look at me everybody. Say cheese! Now get up, go back there, you’re eating there!’

“She sat him with everybody else only to take a picture to send the parents. You get it? And that’s how she tyrannizes and abuses the children all the time. It’s not a slip of the tongue, not a moment of losing it. It’s like this throughout the day.”

The day before, Hakimi adds, “The child’s mother met with the inspectors. At first she was afraid to play them the recording and just told them about the worker’s attitude toward the children. They defended her and said that she’s simply assertive. So she played the recording and they all turned red. This morning she was informed that the worker had been fired.”

At my request, Hakimi plays me a sample of recordings from municipal day care centers. Not once do the workers speak to the children in a normal tone. They only yell, spew vulgarities and/or speak in a humiliating, degrading way. And the children remain silent, whimper or cry.

‘I can’t stand you’

But for now, it’s not the abusive day care workers but Hakimi who's being threatened with lawsuits. Two day care workers are suing her, seeking a total of 800,000 shekels ($254,000) in damages. Hakimi launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for her defense.

“It’s support for a social project in a public battle,” she says. “It’s not for me. I didn’t put myself at risk because my own child was hurt, I did it for the children who are in these day care centers.”

She also wants to believe that if the workers lose in these lawsuits – as she’s confident will happen – it will deter preschool teachers from suing assistants, parents and other activists who expose abuse at preschools and day care centers.

Hakimi says the first lawsuit stems from a recording in which a caregiver at a home day care – in a caregiver's home – in Jerusalem says to a 2-year-old boy: “I can’t stand you, you savage, it would take nerves of steel to tolerate you,” and similar things. “When the boy asks for water, really begs for it, she screams at him, ‘You’re not getting any water! You’re being punished!’ I see this as harming human dignity.”

Hakimi was unable to contact the other parents from that day care, so, to reach the other parents, on Facebook she asked for recommendations for home day cares in the area. “I didn’t write the name of the caregiver or the name of the day care center, and I didn’t share the content of the recordings,” she says. She also didn’t reveal the caregiver’s identity to worried parents who messaged her privately.

“I asked them to write me a private message saying who was in a day care in a certain neighborhood in Jerusalem. They all mentioned names but not the relevant caregiver, so I realized it would be very hard to reach the right parents,” Hakimi says.

“So I added the street name, and within minutes I heard from a mother whose daughter was enrolled in the day care I meant. She was very anxious and pleaded with me to tell her if there was a problem with the caregiver I had the recording of. I agreed to play the recording for her without giving the caregiver’s name and she immediately identified her.”

Carmel Mauda, left, who received a nine-year sentence for assaulting children at a day care. Credit: Ilan Assayag

When that mother then pulled her daughter out of that venue, the caregiver sued Hakimi for 200,000 shekels, claiming that the Facebook post libeled her.

“She demanded 140,000 shekels in compensation within 48 hours and a published apology,” Hakimi says. “She said I damaged her reputation. But her name didn't get written anywhere and I didn’t publish the recording. I wasn’t willing to apologize. I did what I had to do and I wouldn’t do things any differently.” Meanwhile, the day care in question continues to operate as usual.

Hakimi says the second lawsuit against her involves a “much more horrifying” recording and seeks 600,000 shekels in damages. She and her lawyer haven’t yet filed a defense brief.

This case concerns a home day care center in Petah Tikva for five babies between the ages of 6 months and 1 year. One mother contacted Hakimi and received a recording device and instructions on how to use it. “The mother listened to the recording for 10 minutes and then couldn’t listen anymore,” Hakimi says. “She told me, ‘She put him in a room and closed the door. He’s screaming his heart out and she doesn’t go to him.’”

Hakimi says the similarity to the case in Kfar Yona isn’t surprising. “A lot of these caregivers do the same thing. They put them in a room and shut the door and then do who knows what,” she says, adding that in most cases, and unlike the Kfar Yona case, the caregivers take the children out every few hours to feed them. “These kinds of cases are usually closed by the police. It isn’t considered proof of abuse,” she says.

This time, too, Hakimi listened to the full recording, which went on for eight hours. “You hear the caregiver putting two babies in a room,” she says. “For two hours you hear terrible screams. At some point the caregiver takes one baby out of the room, and then you hear the baby screaming for 10 minutes.”

Is there any basis for Hakimi’s theory that this baby was being force-fed? I ask her how you can tell this just from listening, and she suggests that I listen for myself. At the beginning, the baby wails softly and the caregiver yells “enough! Enough! Stop it already! Stop it! Enough! Behave!” The baby cries louder and the caregiver keeps yelling “quiet! Quiet!”

For a moment or two, the crying almost stops, but then it resumes, morphing into screams before another brief spell of quiet. At one point, the baby has a coughing attack. A man’s voice can be heard in the background asking if it’s the right time to eat.

This goes on for 10 minutes, screams that are briefly interrupted and then resume. Intermittent coughing and choking sounds. The caregiver shouts at the baby to be quiet and offers no words of comfort or encouragement. Toward the end she says, “You think I’ll give in to you? I never give in, sweetie.” Then she says, “She finished everything.”

With the consent of the mother who made the recording, Hakimi played it for the other parents from the day care center. “There were parents who came to my home and heard the whole recording,” she says. “They cried and said I saved their child.”

In the lawsuit, the caregiver alleges that Hakimi accused her on social media of abusing children but doesn’t provide proof. Hakimi stands by her claim that she did nothing besides play the recording for parents.

Hakimi also says that even when cameras are installed in the caregiver’s home, in accordance with a law passed in 2018, it’s often of no use. Some caregivers don’t turn the cameras on, or the police find that nothing has been recorded.

In this instance, aside from closing two babies in a room for two hours during which they cried nonstop, and what sounds like a baby being force-fed, Hakimi says another baby is heard crying in his bed for a long time without a response. “She yelled at him to be quiet too,” she says, adding that “this is one of the toughest recordings I’ve ever received.”

She says that to her, shutting babies in a room and force-feeding are just as bad as physical violence. “I hear so many recordings, and sometimes the curses aren’t the worst thing. Leaving a screaming baby all alone in a room for two hours or more – it’s an abomination. Can you imagine what the child is going through?

“I don’t understand why people in this country don’t get it. Why do these cases get stuck in the prosecutor’s office for six months? Is a child’s psyche really that worthless? Why do you need broken bones to prove abuse? Hundreds of cases like this are closed every year. Hundreds. And it never reaches the media.”

The police responded: “Regarding the case under investigation in Petah Tikva, the investigation is currently ongoing, and when it is completed it will be forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for review and a decision on how to proceed.”

Hakimi says: “Carmel Mauda is filing an appeal now, arguing that the sentence she received was disproportionate because the physical injury to the children wasn’t serious. What about their psyches, and their parents’ psyches?”

'No one cares'

She also notes that even cases where there is evidence of physical harm don’t always make it to court. She tells of a mother from Tel Aviv who contacted her because she suspected something was amiss at her baby daughter’s day care center.

“On the recording you can hear the caregiver slapping a baby and then you hear the baby crying,” Hakimi says. “But there’s no video footage, so the case isn’t moving.” The baby’s mother, M., says that ever since she heard the tape six months ago, she hasn’t been able to sleep at night.

Disturbingly, M. says this is the second day care where she sent her daughter with a secret recording device; after hearing the recordings from each place, she quickly pulled her daughter out.

“At the first day care, my daughter was 5 and a half months," she says. "I suspected that something was wrong because there were things that didn’t add up between what the caregiver told me and my daughter’s behavior. On the recording we heard them leaving the babies alone in a room for hours while they were crying and screaming, and no one went in and tended to them at all.”

M. switched her daughter to the second day care center after receiving warm recommendations from other parents in her Tel Aviv neighborhood. Because of her previous experience, she outfitted her daughter with a recording device just one week in, even though she didn’t notice anything amiss.

“The recording was unbelievable,” she says, holding back tears. “You hardly hear other children all throughout the day. I don’t know where they were. There's no mention of food or water. No caring attention, no shows of affection, no playing. In the background you hear television shows for adults.”

M. describes her daughter, who was 8 and a half months at the time, as an alert and active baby with a very easygoing temperament. “After she was ignored for many hours, she began to whine a little, and then you hear the caregiver screaming at her, and something that sounds like a blow, and then stronger screams.”

M. says her daughter, who wasn't crawling or standing yet, came home with a bruise on her leg. After the experience at both day cares, M. lodged a complaint with the police. “The first one was closed a month ago for a lack of evidence, and the second has been sitting in the prosecutor’s office for four months now," she says.

"I gave the police a lot of material for the investigation. Names of people who worked with her, for instance. But they didn’t get in touch with them. They just questioned [the caregiver] once and gave the case to the prosecutor’s office, and it’s still stuck there. The day care is still operating as usual.”

The police responded: “The investigation into the complaint that was filed in Tel Aviv has been completed and the investigative material has been forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for a decision, as is standard practice. The police will continue to examine and investigate any suspicion of abuse of minors and the helpless to protect them and prevent them from being harmed, anytime and anywhere.”

The prosecutor’s office added, “The case was transferred to us a month ago and is currently under review.”

“This case will be closed,” Hakimi predicts. “And the caregiver will go on working. This is what happens in the vast majority of cases. An entire generation here is being subjected to abuse and no one cares.”

Hakimi says the light punishments for abusive caregivers are another part of the problem. “Did you hear about the case of the preschool assistant from Afula?" she asks, referring to Lilach Amsalem, who was convicted of assaulting four toddlers.

"Shocking things were captured on camera, and the parents still had to be dragged through the courts for two years, and all she received was three months of community service. And what kind of community service? At a community center that young children go to!”

Hakimi is a walking encyclopedia of abuse cases at preschools and day cares. She cites the details of one case after another, including many that have long been forgotten.

“I don’t know how she sleeps at night,” M. says of Hakimi. “What you hear on the recordings gets into your head and heart in a way that’s hard to grasp. What she’s doing is a holy mission. She's our angel. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”

As we're speaking, Hakimi’s WhatsApp account overflows with messages from parents. “Today, 30 parents sent their children in with recording devices. They’re all writing to me that they’re worried the caregivers will notice the device, and I reassure them and offer moral support,” she says.

“And there are parents who listened today to what was recorded yesterday and say they're hearing shouting and want to know if this is normal. Honestly, I don’t feel like I have the energy for this sometimes.”

So why don’t you stop?

“Every time I think I’ll just help these 30 and then I’ll be able to rest, but then more people contact me. It just keeps growing, and I can’t help but respond. I’m looking for an organization or a large nonprofit group to adopt my project so I’ll have legal protection – because these lawsuits are wearing me out – and also to get some financial support. I can’t keep doing this alone.”

If she can find such support, Hakimi says she's ready to go after abusive day care operators her whole life. “Not many people are cut out for this,” she says.

What makes you capable of doing this?

“The things I’ve been through in life have toughened me. Also, I’m a person of faith and I believe that everyone has their mission in life. This is my mission.”

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